How two sister architects used childhood memories to revive Detroit’s demolished buildings
Though she’s too young to wax nostalgic about shopping at the Hudson’s flagship store in downtown Detroit, architect Amanda Shin vividly remembers watching the building’s implosion on TV in 1998 as a kid growing up in the suburbs.
Shin, 30, didn’t decide to study architecture until she was in college at the University of Michigan more than a decade later. Still, she credits that television moment, and many of the buildings in Detroit, as a major influence in her professional work. She and her sister Melissa Shin, 34, recently co-founded the studio Shin Shin together in Santa Monica, Calif.
Those memories also inspired a recent side project: “De-troit Detroit,” a collection of demolished building fragments. In bubblegum pink, periwinkle, gold and muted greens, they illustrated architectural details of demolished, partially demo’d and endangered buildings, using archival photos and building plans as references.
The Shins started working on the pet project after visiting Detroit in 2018 for the Design Center in a Box competition, where they were finalists for their design to reactivate a vacant site on East Warren Avenue.
“These memories of how Detroit was when we were younger sort of came back in fragments — you walk around the city and you almost, in a ghostly way, see these fragments of the buildings that you remember,” Amanda Shin said. “So we loosely started a list of all the buildings we remember that don’t exist anymore, and then we were like, ‘What if we tried to bring them all back to life?’
“You see so many images fetishizing the downfall of those buildings, showing them in their decrepit state,” she added, “but we wanted to celebrate them.”
Though some longtime landmarks on Detroit’s skyline are celebrated, and others have been restored in recent years, the city has, well, a history of paving over history. In 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation put basically all of downtown Detroit on its list of the most endangered places in America, due to the rate of demolitions.
More recently, advocates like Preservation Detroit have pushed to save buildings, like the Saturday Night Building (included in the Shin Shin fragments catalog) and buildings owned by the Ilitches near the Little Caesars Arena, eventually spurring the creation of the Cass-Henry Historic District.
In their renderings, the Shins highlight slivers of intricate cornices and unique windows, as well as more iconic facades, like Chin Tiki or Tiger Stadium. Rather than staying close to the originals, their images are poppy and whimsical, as if filtered through their memories from when they were kids.
Though most of their projects are in LA, the Shins have worked on a couple other designs that explore Detroit’s vacancy and incorporate its history.
For the Design Center in a Box challenge, their project “Up Close” proposed replicating details from landmarks for sculptural pieces that could be placed on the vacant site. Imagine walking over a colorful platform that looks just like the top of the Guardian Building.
The project was meant to connect historic and contemporary design, while linking the east side neighborhood to the city center.
In the project “No Vacancy,” the Shins proposed alternative uses for a few stately but unoccupied Victorians in Virginia Park. Their design would convert houses into smaller units more fitting contemporary family sizes. Adjacent vacant lots would add ground-floor commercial space, meaning additional income for homeowners who own businesses — a different version of the mixed-use developments often built in the city.
In one scenario, empty nesters live in a one-bedroom home with a courtyard, greenhouse and restaurant on the first floor. In another, a family lives above a small theater. The project received an honorable mention in the 2018 Arch Out Loud Home competition.
These experimental design proposals might not be realized in Detroit, but Amanda Shin said they’re in discussions about some other potential local projects. In the meantime, she hopes studies like their demolished fragment catalog spark curiosity about the past and remind viewers to keep “a bit of a skeptical lens” for new development and the city’s rapid changes — “not forgetting what used to be there, and that foundation that Detroit was built upon.”
You can keep up with Shin Shin on Instagram. –Kate Abbey-Lambertz